30 June 2010

My First E3: Part 4

[Get caught up: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.]

I woke up early the next morning and went downstairs in search of a cup of coffee. The Santa Monica streets were damp and filled with early morning fog.

I found a place a couple blocks west of Maryanne's building called The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. I bought a coffee in the largest size they sold. Then I stepped back out onto the street and realized that the huge gray wall of mist and fog at the end of the street was actually the Pacific Ocean.

I couldn't see the ocean itself because of the dense fog. But I could feel it; I could feel the great endless expanse of it. A lighthouse or a ship's horn bellowed in the distance. It echoed for a few seconds, then faded away. I suddenly felt small and cold and alone. I took a sip of coffee. It was hot and bitter. It seared the roof of mouth, but I kept drinking anyway.

Get up early tomorrow morning. Really early. West Coast time. Go to this website, and if the weather conditions are right, you'll see what I saw that day.

Back at the apartment, I got Maryanne's computer working. After listening to her PC make a series of shrill noises--this was when dial-up still roamed the earth--I was online, looking at bus schedules.

Something called The Big Blue Bus would take me to a subway station. From there, the subway would take me downtown, to the Convention Center. As shocked as I was to realize that I was standing only several hundred feet away from the Pacific Ocean that morning, I was even more shocked to learn that L.A. actually had a subway.

It did. And still does. Ride it the next time you go there.

I packed everything I needed into a shoulder bag--notebooks, pens, flimsy business cards, etc.--then walked to the nearby bus stop and waited for the Big Blue Bus to arrive.

What arrived was a big blue bus. I boarded and found an empty seat up front, in case I needed to ask the drive any questions.

And I was off.

A portly man sitting a few seats away from me appeared to be talking to himself. I was about to move away from this obviously insane person when I realized that he wasn't actually talking to himself, but was talking into one of those Radio Shack tape recorders that uses micro-cassette tapes. He clicked the record button on and off as he spoke. Click: "Log update: 8:10 a.m. Just boarded bus on Ocean Avenue. Turned onto Santa Monica Boulevard. Heading east, towards downtown. Feeling excited and optimistic about the day. Scheduled arrival time downtime: About 40 minutes." Click.

The official-looking lanyard hanging around his neck identified him as "Al James," the Editor in Chief of a media outlet called "Global World News." He was, like me, on his way to E3.

Looking for some direction and connection, I introduced myself. Al handed me a piece of paper that I realized was his business card. To my utter delight, his cards were even worse than my cards. They consisted of a bit of clip-art of a globe and Al's name, address, and phone number. To make matters worse, the phone number had a line drawn through it and a new number was written underneath.

"So it's your first E3, eh?" Al said. "Don't worry, I'll show you the ropes."

Al told me that the first thing I needed to do when I got to the Convention Center was head for the media room and pick up my badge. "Veterans like me picked up our badges yesterday though," he said, pointing to his badge to illustrate his point.

The bus, I noticed, was picking up speed. We were pulling onto a freeway. I panicked a little. "Isn't this bus going to the subway?"

Al James let out a knowing laugh. "Noooooo. You are on the Number 10. The Number 10 is the Freeway Express. It's the fastest way to get to the Convention Center."

As we sped along through freeway traffic, Al pulled out a ream of paper from his Global World News website. "This should tell you everything you need to know about who I am," Al said. He handed the paper stack to me.

The paper stack consisted of clips of his writings for his Global World News website. Al's writings, page after page after page, consisted entirely of convoluted, typo-riddled digressions on the mysteries of one game: World of Warcraft.

Click. "Log update: 8:32 a.m. On Freeway. Making good progress so far. ETA at Con.: 9 a.m. Met a writer from New York named Scott Jones. It's his first E3. Unanticipated side quest: Must give Scott the E3 guidance he is in dire need of." Click.

Al reached one of his hands into a backpack and pulled out a packet of those orange colored sandwich crackers with peanut butter spread in a thin layer between each sandwich. He munched noisily on one, making the whole bus stink of stale peanut butter. He offered me one. I felt it would be rude not to take it.

"These clips are terrific," I said, handing his papers back to him. The peanut butter cracker was dry in my mouth.

"You keep them," he said, acting as if he was doing me a big favor. "I've got lots of copies right in here." He confidently patted a hand on the large duffel bag in the seat next to him.

Al James did give me some good advice. He told me that there was a free lunch in the press room that few journalists knew about. (It was true; the only problem was you had to line up for it at 10:45 a.m. if you wanted to have any hope of actually getting one of the free lunches.) He told me that the best place to take a nap was in the South Hall behind the Koei booth. (Also true. The area was poorly lit and the carpeting was extra thick there.) And, of course, he told me about the Number 10 bus, which he kept referring to, strangely, as "our chariot of fire."

As helpful as Al James from Global World News had been, I knew that I needed to get far away from him as soon as possible. Even then I recognized Al James for what he was: The kind of writer that I did not want to be. As Al James continued to fill up micro-cassettes with his log updates, I worried that I was already in danger of falling in with the wrong crowd in this new world.

When the bus dropped us off a few blocks away from the Convention Center, Al stopped to chat with another portly man who also had a Radio Shack recorder in his hand. I realized that this was my moment. I moved away from Al and his friend, letting myself get carried along with the crowd. I heard him call my name a few times, but I pretended I couldn't hear him.

Outside the Convention Center, I deposited Al's Warcraft stories into a trash can. Then I went inside.

25 June 2010

My First E3: Part 3

[Missed earlier chapters? Read one and two.]

According to my MapQuest map, Maryanne's apartment was only a block off Santa Monica Boulevard, not far from the Jack In The Box.

Santa Monica Boulevard was lousy with lumbering buses--buses which I would come to know intimately soon enough--and a fleet of sports cars with their tops down being driven by beautiful women wearing sunglasses that made them resemble prehistoric bugs. But a mere half block off of Santa Monica Boulevard, things abruptly got far more peaceful. Birds were chirping. I could smell the salt in the air blowing in from the Pacific. After the millions of terrible things I'd heard New York people say about L.A., it didn't seem too bad so far.

All the buildings on Maryanne's street looked modern and clean. They weren't old and crumbling with huge banks of garbage cans crawling with rats out front like they were in Brooklyn. In fact, I didn't see any trash at all. Where did California people put their trash? New York people put their trash out front, as if they were proud of it, as if they were saying, "Fuck you, here's my trash."

Maryanne's building was a humble, sand-colored structure with a large, clean glass door and not one bit of trash out front. Per her instructions, I peered into the planter next to the building's entryway. It's the second ficus tree in the concrete planter from the left, she had said on the phone. As nonchalantly as possible, I began to dig through the cedar chips at the base of ficus, not wanting to draw attention to myself.

I dug a path with my bare hands around the base of the ficus. I dug casually at first, and then with an increased amount of urgency, as my digging turned up no balls of tinfoil. I double checked the building's address. (I was at the right address.) I re-counted the ficus trees. (I was digging beneath the second ficus from the left.)

"It's not here," a voice said. I recognized the voice. It was my father, only as usual, he sounded like he was using one of those voice-changing things to make him sound like Darth Vader. "You went to New York, and you made a fool of yourself, working that terrible, shit job and running up loads of debt," the voice said. "And now you're here, looking for a key left for you by a total stranger that's supposedly buried beneath a tree. All in the name of doing what? So you can go to a videogame convention. Look at yourself. You've got your hands buried in the dirt on a strange street in a strange city, looking for something that simply isn't there. Do yourself a favor and go home before you permanently erode the last shred of dignity from the Skywalker family name."

My dad, to put it mildly, hasn't always been supportive of my life decisions.

As much as I try to ignore The Voice, it still has power. Just as the voice began to work its strange voodoo on me, just as I began to feel sick to my stomach with doubt and anxiety, I found it.

I fucking found it.

The ball of tinfoil was there, exactly as Maryanne had promised. I unfolded it quickly, feverishly, peeling back the layers, until--voila--a pair of keys fell out. I wiped my hands on my pants, brushing off the dirt, then picked up the set of keys off the sidewalk. I inserted Key One into the lock on the glass door and turned. It opened. I dragged my crummy suitcase inside.

"Fuck you, Voice," I said, wheeling my suitcase into the elevator. "Eat my ass, Voice."

I knew that this wasn't the last time The Voice and I would battle. But in this particular moment, I was right and The Voice was wrong. And that felt really fucking good.

Maryanne's apartment was located on the third floor of the building. It was clean and neat and very adult, with photographs on the wall, a few pieces of semi-tasteful art, and a glass dining room table that appeared to be slightly too big for the apartment. A water cooler stood in the center of the kitchen. I'd never seen a water cooler in a private home before. (Yes, I had led a sheltered life up to this point.) To have one in your apartment seemed terribly indulgent to me. I found a glass in the cupboard, and filled it up, watching the air bubbles rise to the surface inside the cooler.

Man, I don't think I've ever enjoyed a glass of water as much as I enjoyed that glass of water.

I found the spare bedroom where I'd be staying. An extremely large piece of exercise equipment that appeared to not have been used in long time occupied the bulk of the room's square footage. A bathroom with a shower was across the hall.

I thought, I will be OK here. I thought, I am safe now.

As I mentioned earlier, Maryanne is the mother-in-law of one of my classmates from graduate school. I knew that this very spare room where I was staying was where my friend and his wife slept when they visited Maryanne. Thinking about my friend and his wife using this same exact bed made the place feel much less foreign to me.

The show floor opened at 10 a.m. the next morning. According to my MapQuest map, the L.A. Convention Center was an incredibly long way from Santa Monica--probably at least several hundred dollars by cab. I had to figure out some other, much more cost-effective way to get there.

I switched off the light and tried to get some sleep.

[More soon.]

23 June 2010

My First E3: Part 2

[Missed Part 1? Click here.]

I got off the plane at LAX and retrieved my crappy suitcase from baggage claim. Then I headed for the cab line outside the terminal.

My cab driver was gifted with a terrific amount of neck hair. He glanced at me in the rearview mirror, waiting for me to tell him where to take me to.

I had Maryanne's address (my friend's mom who I would be staying with) written down on a piece of scrap paper. I was about to hand him the address, when I realized that giving a cab driver an address on a piece of paper would basically reveal me as the equivalent of a banjo-plucking rube begging to be taken advantage of.

"Santa Monica, sir," I said, with as much confidence as I could muster. The driver peered at me in the rearview. I looked out the window, trying to look bored and content, like I had been looking out of dirty cab windows for many decades now. He started the meter and sped away from the curb.

The sun was low on the horizon, setting in the West. And since we were driving West, it appeared as if we were driving straight into a huge ball of fire.

We got onto a freeway--the 101? the 405? man, I don't know--and found ourselves in L.A. traffic. It wasn't a "jam," not in the way that traffic in New York usually means being in a OK-now-it's-a-parking-lot "jam." Traffic in L.A. meant that we'd drive a few feet at a very slow speed. We'd stop very briefly. Then we'd drive a few more feet. We were moving towards the fire ball, making progress, but at an agonizingly slow pace.

I was so distracted, so mesmerized by the fireball (I'd never see the sun so huge and ominous and beautiful before) that I hadn't noticed the cab's meter. It felt like we'd left the airport only moments ago, but already the meter was at $80. And before I even had a chance to allow this terrible bit of information to register, it was at $84.

Then $88.

I'd never seen a cab meter climb like this before.

I panicked and peered into my wallet. I had a total of $80 with me, which was supposed to be enough to get me through my week. I leaned forward and asked the driver's neck hair if we were getting close to my destination.

He laughed knowingly, as if a thousand banjo-plucking rubes had asked him this question a thousand times before. It was a question that he obviously never got tired of hearing. As the meter reached $92--then $96--he said, "Just relax, cowboy, I'll get you there," he said.

I was in a strange city--a big, sprawling city filled with six-lane roadways, and where an alien fireball hung in the sky--in a cab that I couldn't afford to pay for, heading towards a key wrapped in tinfoil and buried beneath a small tree that either would or would not be there.

The prudent thing to do here would be to turn around, to have the driver take me back to the airport, to call off this lark--this unaffordable, indulgent farce--before things got worse than they already were.

And then, suddenly, without warning, the cab broke free of the stop-and-go traffic. The driver hit the gas. We were moving, really moving, barreling along. We were going too fast, the meter was climbing too high, but I thought, "Fuck it. Fuck it all."

When we arrived in Santa Monica, the driver took me to a cash machine. I got the machine to cough up a few more 20-dollar bills. I paid him and he drove off. I stood alone on Santa Monica Boulevard, across from a Jack In The Box restaurant. The sun was going down. Shadows grew long.

I felt an unexpected chill in the air. Who knew that L.A. would be so cold at night? It was time to find that tinfoil-wrapped key, and to see if my fuck-it-all moment was the right way to go after all.

But first, I'd use a few of the dollars left in my pocket to buy a sandwich from the Jack In The Box, the only fast-food chain that has a mascot even more unnerving than Ronald McDonald. Key or no key, I had to eat something.

[More. Soon.]

17 June 2010

E3 2010: After hours...

There's always this sort of great moment at the end of any day at E3 when your appointments are finally finished. You get carried along with the outgoing tide of convention-goers all making their way towards the exits. And, suddenly, you emerge into the late day sun of L.A.

Ahhh.

There's something terribly primal about this moment. Everyone seems to slow down a bit. Some people pause for a second, stopping in their tracks, squinting up at the sky, and letting the sun fall on their faces and arms. Smokers pull over into the smoking lane and light up.

There's good will in this moment. Strangers strike up conversations. Friends stand a bit closer together, chewing over the day. After eight hours of being ushered in small groups into very small rooms filled with very large televisions, we are together again. Your life is your own again.

It feels really fucking good.

There are usually a great many end-of-day options at this point. One: you could head to a PR-sponsored gathering near the old swimming pool behind the Hotel Figueroa. Two: you could go to semi-quiet dinner at McCormick and Schmick's. Three: you could go to a Microsoft gathering at the Hotel Edison. There's also usually "a THQ thing," or "an Activision thing," and at least 20 or so other things that you most likely haven't even heard about yet.

It doesn't matter which thing, or things, one chooses. No one thing is better or worse than any other thing. More than anything, this moment is about being with other people.

So what you do is, you stand still. You feel the gravity of the night. It's all potential at this point, all possibility.

This is what I decided to do on Wednesday night, my final night in L.A.: I would go to the PR gathering by the old swimming pool at the the Hotel Figueroa. I said goodbye to my colleague Ben Silverman (from Yahoo Games and Reviews on the Run), took about 10 steps towards the Figueroa, then realized that I did not want to do this. I ran back to Ben, who I knew was waiting in the cab line outside the convention center.

"I'm going with you," I said.

He seemed happy to hear this.

We got a cab together. Ben was certain that after eight hours of stuffy game demos, his deodorant was no longer effective. He had a spare shirt in his backpack. "Mind if I change?" he said.

I assured him that his deodorant was still very much effective. He would not be swayed. He peeled off his shirt. Suddenly, I was in the back of a cab speeding down Flower Street with a topless Jewish man. In the name of giving Ben his privacy, I turned away. "I look like an upside-down mushroom," Ben said, allowing his nudity linger for an extra beat longer than he needed to. The two of us started laughing.

Ah, E3. Fuck, man.

A few minutes later, with Ben's fresh shirt covering his shame, we arrived at the Hotel Edison. I'd never been here before. It was a dark, cavernous place. A polished bar stretched into the distance. I noticed massive steel structures, long dormant, off in the shadows. (It was originally downtown L.A.'s first private power plant.) A woman wearing translucent angel wings for some inexplicable reason circulated around the bar with a tray filled with a salmon and dill appetizers. We both grabbed one.

I can't recall food ever tasting better than it did in this moment.

We watched the salmon-toting food angel disappear into the shadows. I wished with all my heart that she would come back.

The actor Nathan Fillion, Ben told me, had been here, at The Edison, the night before at a Halo: Reach gathering. I'd recently watched the entire season of Firefly for the first time. "Man, I hope he shows up again," I said. (There's more to the Ben-meets-Nathan Fillion story. But that's his story. So ask him to tell it to you.)

Then, out of the shadows emerged Felicia Day. I'd met her the day before at the Sony press conference. "There goes Felicia Day," I whispered to Ben. I considered saying hello to her--remember me from the Sony press conference?--when suddenly the Salmon Angel reappeared. By the time we'd finished eating our salmon things, Felicia Day was gone. "Oh well," I said.

I had a dinner to attend at the aforementioned McCormick and Schmick's. Now that I'm not drinking, I no longer want a tall, cold beer at the end of my days at E3; now I want a big meal, preferably on the early side of the night. So I said goodbye to Ben, promising to return later on in the evening and knowing full well that I would not. I made my way to the surface from the subterranean Edison and hailed a taxi.

The dinner at McCormick and Schmick's was less than satisfying. I sawed away at a miserly piece of over-seasoned meat. After dinner, still unsatisfied, still craving some sort of exclamation point at the end of my E3 experience, I decided to press on. I had the waiter call me a cab.

I'd been invited to a strange, pretentious-sounding party in a section of L.A. known as Los Feliz. My friend, Chris Jurney, who works for Double Fine, had told me about this party a couple of months ago. It was being held at a private home. There would be no music at the party. The emphasis would be on conversation. (See? Pretentious.) There would be good food at the party. It would be attended primarily by developers. The Escapist would be there filming the event for posterity.

My cab driver was an elderly Iraqi man wearing a pair of yellowed reading glasses. I told him where I was going, and he pulled away from the restaurant with a great deal of confidence, even making the tires squawk a little.

I rolled the window down and let the night air blow on my face. I was off on an exciting adventure. I was sure that I would find my exclamation point in Los Feliz. Suddenly, we stopped.

The cab had pulled over. The driver located a tattered atlas in his glove box. He switched on the cab's dirty interior light. "Don't worry, my friend, I will get you there!" he said cheerily. He then pulled out a huge, old magnifying glass and began using it to peer at his atlas.

Whatever momentum I had, whatever optimism I was feeling, was quickly escaping out of the rolled-down window of the cab.

How long did we sit there? Long enough for me to lean forward and say, "You know what? Forget this destination. I just want to go back to my hotel--"

"I'VE FOUND IT!" the driver said. He tossed his atlas aside and peeled away from the curb. "Ha, ha! I will get you there, sir! Don't worry, don't worry!"

I don't know L.A. At all. I had no fucking idea where we were heading. My entire existence in this moment depended on a nearsighted, magnifying glass-wielding Iraqi man.

To make matters worse, the man began to talk. "I HOPE YOU DON'T MIND ME TALKING IT HELPS ME PASS THE TIME HA, HA!" he said.

His name was Michael. He had been in L.A. for 20 years. He had worked as a limousine driver. He drove a lot of famous clients around, including Julio Iglesias and Farrah Fawcett. "Farrah Fawcett, she was so good to me," he said. "She was a beautiful person inside and out."

Each time Michael's cab slowed to under 30 miles per hour, I fantasized about hurling myself out the door and into the L.A. night. I would curl myself into a ball and hope that I would not suffer any permanent physical damage. The only thing that kept me from doing this is the fact that I had no idea where we were. We were moving away from downtown. The streets around us were dark and menacing.

I was at Michael's mercy. And he seemed to know it.

To his credit, Michael did get me to the house. The party had been going on for quite a few hours by the time I arrived, long enough for the rented security guards at the foot of the driveway to be enjoying plates of food. They seemed annoyed to have their chicken wing consumption interrupted by my appearance.

The driveway was very, very long. It was filled with a grade of expensive crushed stone that made it difficult to walk up. I trudged along, following a trail of flickering candles, towards the buzz of conversation and shadows. In retrospect, I think that perhaps those stones were trying to tell me something. They were saying, TURN BACK. THERE IS NOTHING HERE FOR YOU.

I did get to spend a bit of time with Chris Jurney. But at this point in the night, I had no energy left. Simple conversations with people were agonizing. I felt like their words were little stones--yes, stones from the very driveway that I had just traversed--being tossed at my forehead. Realizing that my night was over, that I had nothing good to offer these people, I expended my last bit of energy in saying goodbye. I headed back down the never-ending driveway, anxious to get back to my hotel.

This being a residential neighborhood, there was no street traffic, let alone a steady stream of fare-seeking cabs. I asked the sated security people if they could call a cab for me. "We don't have that kind of information," one of them said.

Finally, out of the dark, a taxi light appeared. It pulled up. People piled out. One of these people was Mark Rein from Epic. "I can't believe people are leaving already," Mark said, frowning in my direction as I got into his group's vacated cab.

The driver sped me to my motel in blissful silence. When I arrived, I realized that I didn't have any bottled water left in my room. So I crossed Sunset Boulevard at midnight and headed into the cool, over lit confines of the 24-hour Ralph's.

As I combed the aisles in search of the water section--L.A. supermarkets always have the biggest water sections--I felt something strange. My neck felt tingly. Yes, I was exhausted. Yes, I was completely drained from my day. Yet, I felt this sudden influx of adrenaline. I was suddenly, for unknown reasons, absolutely, ridiculously and absurdly elated.

I had no idea what was happening to me. I felt this was an important moment. I couldn't explain what was going on. Realizing that I had my camera in my bag, I dug it out and filmed about 15 seconds of the Ralph's aisles at midnight for posterity.

Here is that footage.
video

16 June 2010

E3 2010: Well, I'm here.

Proven Scientific Fact: It is not humanly possible for one person to process the scope of E3 2010.

For the past 48 hours, I have had controllers shoved into my hands, undersized 3-D glasses pushed onto my oversized head, and games--hundeds of wonderful, terrible games--crammed into my now-even-more-nearsighted eyes.

Metaphor for E3: OK, imagine that you go to a Pie Eating Contest and eat a lot of pies. Then you go to a Hot Dog Eating Contest and eat hot dogs galore. And then you go to a second Pie Eating Contest, only in the second Pie Eating Contest several of the pies may have been prepared with dog shit. That's E3.

I love videogames. I have loved them for almost four decades now. But as with anything worth loving, (even when it comes to yourself, which you should definitely try to love) there is also much to loathe about videogames. And all that I love--and loathe--is on full display this week.

Exhibit A: I saw a grown man clutching his chest and having what appeared to be a very painful and simultaneously very joyful heart attack while also ejaculating a tremendous amount of sperm into his trousers during the Nintendo press conference at the moment a new Kirby game was announced.

Now, I am glad that this grown man has found joy in the world. Good for you, sir. But for the love of god, man, get ahold of yourself. Jesus.

I haven't been especially jazzed by anything I've seen so far. Move? Kinect? 3DS? Man, I don't know. Bulletstorm seemed funny and self-aware and interesting to me. I definitely want the redesigned Xbox 360. Secretly, I want the new Harmonix game, Dance Central, because I don't know how to dance, and I've always kind of wish I did know how, instead of being the dick head at every party who has to pretend that he hates all things dance-related.

I still despise all of the exercise-related stuff. Is there ever a ton of it this year. All of it is designed to prey on out of shape people who are willing to part with their some of their fast-food money to purchase the promise of a healthier lifestyle when they could simply go outside and jump around for $0.00.

I don't want Kinectimals or Invizimals or Eyepet. I have real cats. Two of them. They are pains in my ass. They are in my apartment even as I type this, completely ruining all of my stuff and pissing into a box of sand. But they also really great, and are so much more fun to pet than fake animals that live in my gaming console. Plus, real cats can take naps with you. Top THAT, Skittles.

Need For Speed being developed by Criterion? OK, that looks fucking fun. But please, EA, do not outright kill off the Burnout franchise. I beg of you. Also, EA, while I have your ear: Banish this whole Gun Club idea. Put it into the same pretend-it-never-happened file that Nintendo put that Vitality Sensor bullshit into. Gun Club is an embarrassment. It is a debacle of epic proportions. It is in the poorest taste imaginable.

Speaking of Nintendo: I felt awful for Miyamoto. Nintendo made him burst through a paper banner like he was auditioning for the role of Smash Shigeru in season nine of Friday Night Lights, and then made him flail around with a broken Wii-Motion Plus controller. Maybe this was some sort of super secret, black ops-type payback for all of the jabbering Miyamoto has been accused of doing over the years, before Nintendo ordered him to keep his trap shut, and also to pedal a junky bike to work every day. Consider him adequately chagrinned, Nintendo.

Epic Mickey looks pretty cool--I love you, Warren Spector!!!!!!!--despite the unfortunate fact that Mickey appears to be spraying warm bodily fluids around the game world. (My friend John Teti and I promptly renamed the game "Mickey's Jizz-O-Rama." Yes, we are two very mature adults.)

Sony: Thank you for resurrecting Sly Cooper. It is about time. But no thanks for your gassy 2.5 hour press conference that was 89-percent commercials for your products. Also: Thanks for the splitting headache I got from playing Killzone 3 in 3-D in your booth. I'm sure this is not the last of my 3-D-induced headaches to come...

I am heading back to the show floor to do another tour of duty. More later.

11 June 2010

My First E3: Part 1

I've had a lot of shit jobs in my life.

Example: For several years I worked for an old boob magazine in New York. You know what a boob magazine is. Don't make me spell it out for you. My job was to write and edit copy that would ostensibly make heterosexual men uncontrollably excited.

On my lunch hour, I closed the door to my office--an act, I'm now certain, that my depressed, judgmental officemates interpreted as me engaging in bouts of high-speed self-pleasure--and I wrote game reviews.

I met deadlines. Spoke with editors (many of whom, I now realize, were mere kids with websites). I revised my reviews, trying to make them better.

I never got paid anything for that writing. I wrote simply because I loved videogames. I wrote because I believed that, on some level, I had to be qualified to write about games (or at least, "as qualified" as anyone else was who was writing about them at the time). I read the magazines and the websites and I thought, Shit, man, yeah, I can do this.

Looking back on those years, writing those game reviews was probably the single hopeful act I committed in my then-hopeless, doomed existence.

Man, that really was a shit job.

I daydreamed a lot while at the office. I wanted to write about games for a living. I wanted to write about games, play games, talk about games. I wanted to be around gamers. Gamers: They've always been my people.

I saved up about $3,000. I quit the old boob magazine. "Fuck you, Boob Magazine." I was out. I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing. I applied to teach English in a chain of third-rate ESL schools in New York. Never heard back from them. "Fuck you, chain of third-rate ESL Schools."

Plan B: I thought I might get back into teaching, maybe in one of those toney private schools like in that Dead Poets Society movie. I began to talk to some placement services. But those conversations never really went anywhere.

Plan C: I went to the local EB Games on 82nd Street. I asked if they were hiring. I thought maybe I could write a funny, pithy story about working in an EB Games.

They weren't hiring.

Pathetic.

Plan D: I decided to become a substitute teacher in the New York City public school system. I applied for what's known as a "Per Diem license," which the NYC public school system charges $100 for, meaning my savings was now down to $2,900. I waited by the phone for schools to call. They never did.

Via one of the no-pay videogame sites I was working for at the time (GameCritics.com), I miraculously got credentials for E3. I was thrilled. I had homemade business cards made up on the fly. I bought a plane ticket on American Airlines to L.A. I asked a friend from graduate school who had grown up in L.A. for advice on where to stay. He said that his mother in law had a place with a spare bedroom in Santa Monica. I could stay there.

I spoke to her on the phone. She sounded very nice. She was going to be away when I arrived, but that I was more than welcome to stay at her place. We tried to figure out how she would get the spare key to me. There wasn't enough time to mail the key. So she came up with what is, in retrospect, a terrible plan: She would wrap the spare key in a wad of tinfoil and submerge it in the dirt beneath a specific ficus tree near the front entrance to her building. "OK, sounds great," I said, then hung up the phone.

So I got on a plane to Los Angeles, California--a city I had only ever been to once before with an ex-girlfriend--accompanied by my paper-thin business cards and my cheap luggage, with this entire unaffordable 3,000-mile-long wild stab at a career change depending entirely on the location of a key wrapped in tinfoil and hidden beneath a tree. ("It's the second tree in the concrete planter from the left, if you're facing the building," she had said.)

I wasn't a very savvy traveler back then. Flying spooked me. All I could think about was all the miles and miles of empty nothingness beneath me. Every bump of the plane, every jostle, made me think, "Well, fine, that's it. We are going DOWN. Goodbye, world."

I spotted a tall, very together-looking young dude sitting a few rows in front of me with a knapsack that had the logo of popular tech-gear magazine on it. I thought, Shit, this guy must be on his way to E3, too. For most of the flight I try to figure out a way to say hello to him, to connect with him. It couldn't hurt to have a least one person in Los Angeles who I knew.

Finally, he got up out of his seat and headed to the restroom. The bathroom was occupied so he stood there waiting. Now was my chance.

I unbuckled my seatbelt and approached him. "So, on your way to E3?" I said.

He looked at me. Just then the morning sun glanced off the wing of the plane and poured through the windows like a movie premier spotlight. His haircut, I noticed, looked very expensive.

"Nope," he said.

I sat back down and opened one of the in-flight magazines. I tried to look stunned and fascinated by what I was reading there, and tried not to let my reckless attempt at making a connection with someone--anyone--embarrass me too much.

[End of Part 1. More to follow. -jones]

09 June 2010

Drinking & Gaming: The Honeymoon Is Most Definitely Over


If you've followed my writing over the years, even out of your periphery, then you know that I enjoying drinking. A lot. On a regular basis. Beer and I have been friends for a great many years.

But lately, beer hasn't exactly been a good friend to me.

It's not the drinking that's become the problem. Beer and I can still spiral down into our familiar, warm, safe place. It's the hangovers that have become unbearable.

It's the waking-up-late; it's the feeling-like-dog-shit; it's the hating myself--so much that I wish I could somehow get out of my own dog-shit-feeling body--that I can't fucking stand anymore.

So beer and I are through. At least, I hope we're through this time.

It's been nearly two weeks now since I've had a beer. There have been a couple of tempting nights. Walking home after work, I can feel the gravity of the Crosstown liquor store. I can feel those 12-packs, behind glass and lit so beautifully, calling to me.

That's when I remind myself of the waking-up-late-feeling-like-dog-shit-hating-myself back-end of this deal. So far, that's been enough for me to stay the course, to go home to my apartment, and to deal with the litter box, and the bills, and the laundry, and the good, the bad, and the discomforting feelings that I feel about myself and the world.

What has been interesting to note in the past (almost) two weeks is how much more enjoyable gaming has become. Gaming and beer have gone hand in hand, arm in arm, for me for nearly 20 years now. I typically don't like to do one without the other. These two activities had become so entwined that on the rare occasions when I did game without a beer, I'd find myself during pauses in gameplay--load screens, etc.--involuntarily reaching for a phantom glass.

In the name of convincing myself that I needed beer to game, I carefully explained to myself that videogames tend to feature long, boring, and often frustrating stretches. Beer was what got me through those stretches.

But it didn't.

Not really.

What it did, usually, was leave me in a foggy, lost place where, with each drained bottle, my motor skills and hand-eye coordination would diminish ever so slightly, until I'd finally encounter a point in said game that I could not overcome.

The next day, as fucking sad and pathetic as this sounds, I'd have no choice but to load up a Saved game from an earlier point in the evening. A Saved game at 8:32 p.m.? That's fine. But a Saved game at 11:32 p.m.? That's not fine.

In the not-quite two weeks of beer-less gaming, I've noticed that whenever I am no longer enjoying a game, I now stop playing the game. This happened during Splinter Cell: Conviction about a week ago. I was barreling through levels, simply to get to the end. No longer was I feeling anything that I should be feeling while playing the game--no tension, no empowerment, no mystery. Instead, all I was feeling was the need to get the damn thing over with.

So I shut Conviction down for the night and went to bed and read a book and fell asleep.

Like, I would imagine, a normal person would do.

If I'd been drinking while playing, no doubt I would have continued to barrel my way through the game, not especially enjoying, or appreciating, anything that I was doing.

So far, in these almost two weeks, I've finished three games in total. Which, as any gamer can tell you, is a lot of game-finishing in a very a short period of time.

And I've enjoyed myself, far more that I ever did while beer-gaming. (New term I just coined.)

I've been able to gauge tedium better. I've been able to appreciate the beginnings, middles, and mostly dull endings of games better.

And I've finally stopped reaching for those phantom beers after boss fights and load screens.

This is good. This, I believe, is the right way to go.

This issue is also on my mind because next week, I'll be in L.A. for E3. Around 50 percent of the event invitations I've received involve the promise of gratis booze that will be flowing like a big, decadent river in my direction.

So much of this industry is tied to parties, and drinking, and let-me-pick-up-the-tab culture that I suppose it's not surprising that I am what I am.

And I am what I am.

I'll keep you posted on my progress. And if I should fall off the wagon and find myself loading up those 8:32 p.m. saved games again, you'll be the first to hear of it.

Promise.

07 June 2010

The Latest Crap Third Act: Alan Wake's Ending Completely Blows


If you haven't played Alan Wake yet, and you plan to, be warned: I'm about to shine a light on its finale AND PULL THE LEFT TRIGGER. (Which makes your beam really strong, and totally drains your flashlight's batteries.)

Actually, wait. Hold up. Don't go anywhere.

What I'm about to say probably won't do any damage to whatever enjoyment you'd glean from the game. Alan Wake's first few hours are without a doubt the best hours of the game--and are arguably the most interesting, genuinely unnerving hours of 2010 so far. And you can still experience those hours. Nothing I'm saying here can take those hours away from you.

My issue is with the left turn the game makes in its final hours, straight into a pile of horseshit.

Looking back, I could sort of feel the left turn coming, too. As I ran through the game--Pro Tip: Hold down the left-bumper and Alan Wake will run!--then, after very short distances, paused to double over and wheeze like a 19th century chimney sweep--Pro Tip: Writers are apparently in very bad shape!--I began to dread the Left Turn more than I dreaded the lumberjack shadow-zombies that live in the game's virtual woodlands.

Right from the start, Alan Wake continually doles out glimpse montages. Look, there's an old lady. There's my wife sinking to the bottom of a lake. There's a guy in an old-time diving suit. There's Alan Wake chattering to himself on a television. And so forth.

The glimpse-montage is a familiar gimmick. We've seen it before countless times in movies and TV shows. The deal that is struck by the glimpse-montage is this: Here is a series of seemingly disparate images. But stick around, and eventually these disparate images will cohere in a semi-logical, and semi-satisfying conclusion.

Alan Wake never makes good on that promise. It never even comes close to making good on that promise. Is Alan Wake's wife still alive? Who is the old lady behind the black veil? Who is the guy-thing in the old-time diving suit? Did Alan's magic clicker really destroy the old lady in the black veil? Why did light come blowing out of her eyes and mouth at the end? Is it all metaphor?

Don't look at me for the answers.

And a more pressing question: Who left all of these goddamn coffee thermoses around? In one of the game's gamier moments, I was about to encounter an intimidating group of the Taken (the aforementioned shadow-zombies), and instead of checking my inventory to make sure I had a flashbang ready and that my shotgun was loaded, and girding my loins for a battle, I was suddenly humping my way towards a pale blue coffee thermos THAT I JUST HAD TO COLLECT.

Alan Wake is not a bad game. I enjoyed the game's deliberate pacing, the way that it confidently allows dread to accrue. I loved the Pacific Northwest setting. I've always been a sucker for old, bottomless lakes and cabins with faulty wiring. And for a survival-horror game, the combat in the game is extremely satisfying. Torching the Taken with my flashlight beam until they became vulnerable/corporeal, then jacking them up with a few blasts from my pump-action shotgun never really got old.

That's not entirely true. Near the end, it got old. A little, anyway.

I just wish the whole damn thing had made more fucking sense. You can't ask me to invest eight hours into something, and then leave me with nothing but a series of nonsensical cutscenes at the end. Maybe Remedy was concerned that if they actually adhered to the laws of logic and storytelling, if they gave us anything tangible and satisfying, we wouldn't all be sitting on the edge of our seats waiting for DLC and the sequel.

Gamers often brag about how many games they've finished. They can't wait to crow about how they took such-and-such game out to the woodshed and really showed it who's the boss. Yet, nine out of 10 times, whenever I polish off a game, I never walk away with a feeling of accomplishment. The final hours of Alan Wake were tedious and masturbatory. This morning, as I put the game back on the shelf, I feel what I usually feel whenever I finish a game: a vague sense of regret and disappointment.

04 June 2010

Apartment Search & Videogames: Part 1


The apartments here (in Vancouver) are unlike anything I've ever seen before, anywhere on earth.

For the same amount of rent that might get me a studio apartment (with a square footage on par with what a taxi cab's trunk would have) on a terrible block in a terrible neighborhood/terrible borough in New York City, you can have something that would make a nouveau rap star blush.

Outdoor decks. Fireplaces. Views of snow-topped mountains and the ocean. Laundry machines in your own apartment. These are things that people expect from their living experiences here. Here, people fill their closets with clothing, instead of trying to pass them off as second bedrooms.

You don't have to be Derek Jeter, or a venture capitalist, or one of the Sex and the City ladies to enjoy a semi-decent quality of life here.

I've been thinking about space and apartments a lot lately because I've been considering a move. Make no mistake, where I currently live is fine. I've got a couple of bathrooms to choose from. A fancy shower. An outdoor deck and fireplace that, in a year's time, I have yet to use. (I think I enjoy the idea of using my deck, the promise of the deck, more than I actually enjoy using it. Yes, I'm strange.)

But I'm feeling a little restless these days. So my real estate agent, a nice woman named Shelly, has been showing me places for the last couple of weeks.

The places that I've seen so far? The stuff of dreams, people.

Duplexes. Multiple bathrooms. Closets. Laundry machines as far as the eye can see. (I don't even think they have laundromats here. Is there a more terrible urban invention than the laundromat?)

But the criteria that is absolutely number one on my list of must-haves: Is this place good for gaming?

Gaming requires privacy. And darkness. If not darkness, then at the very least shadow. My colleague Victor Lucas has a gaming room in the basement of his house that is, no joke, so damn dark you can practically feel the mushrooms growing on you down there.

A good gaming space--or gaming cave--requires several important qualities:

1. It needs to be a separate space from the rest of the house/apartment.
2. It needs to be as far away as possible from where your significant other sleeps at night.
3. It needs to receive an extremely limited amount of sunlight.
4. The designated space must have a conveniently located electrical outlet that is capable of handling at least eight to 10 inputs simultaneously.

The result should be a private room that is so dramatically gloomy that even Gollum would have trouble finding his Precious in there.

I've seen some places with potential so far. I saw a place yesterday in a converted warehouse with huge wooden support beams and exposed brick and a kitchen that featured a Viking range. I got a terrific feeling from being in the place. I heard that the actress Kristin Kreuk lives there. I thought about it non-stop all night. Maybe Kristin Kreuk would bump into one another in the elevator one day. We'd become friends, and no doubt exchange keys, so that we could check on each other's apartment while we were traveling. And then, one day, as we were staying up late talking one night, the 1978 Superman movie would suddenly come on TV. She would remark on my slight monkey-like resemblance to the Man of Steel. And then we would make out for several bliss-filled hours...

But in the sober, head-clearing light of morning, I faced facts: There was no part of the apartment that would permit me to have the private gaming space I need to do my work. Or "work."

So, for now, the search continues.

Sorry, Kristin.

01 June 2010

Wii = Dead (Literally This Time)


Turned on the Wii last night only to be warmly greeted by a black screen and the following curt, clipped sentences: "THE SYSTEM FILES ARE CORRUPTED. PLEASE REFER TO THE WII OPERATIONS MANUAL FOR HELP TROUBLSHOOTING."

As if simply telling me that my Wii is fucked was not enough, the nice person in charge of creating this screen--yes, someone has to create these types of screens; paging Dr. Kafka--also saw fit to render the two sentences in some of jarbled-up, broken-assed font.

I was oddly calm during this moment. I didn't start sweating, or turning over furniture. I didn't pour myself a drink the way that Tom Hagen pours Vito Corleone a drink before telling him that Sonny got shot on the causeway.

I very calmly, cooly began troubleshooting. Step one: I have no fucking idea where my "operations manual" is. So I moved on to step two: restarting and saying a prayer.

The most curious aspect of the experience was the complete and utter lack of emotion I felt about the whole thing. I have had emotional relationships with my consoles. About a month ago, I visited my New York City at my apartment. I went through my closets and found my Super Nintendos (plural; my brother gave me his when he got married), my PlayStation, my Dreamcast, my Nintendo 64, etc. I held each machine for a moment, wiped the dust from its casing, and as cornball as it sounds, I spent some time recalling all the terrific times the two of us had together.

Let me tell you, those machines got me through some rough periods in my life. Break-ups. Deaths. Firings. Even smaller moments--example: missing the 10:19 bus in Chicago, knowing that I'd be late for my shift at the stupid, dumb, fancy restaurant where I worked in the '90s--were bearable because I knew at the end of the day, after all the bullshit and headaches and arguments with Frank the sous chef, it would be me and M. Bison going at it hammer and tongs in Street Fighter II on the SNES.

Which brings me back to my cold reaction to the Wii's death.

Make no mistake, the Wii and I have had some fun together. The Super Mario Galaxy games? Excite Truck? Mario Kart Wii? Good stuff, all of it.

But the aspect of the Wii that I have always loved the most was the Virtual Console. The white, unassuming little box has always been little more than a cipher to me, an empty vessel that appropriates old dreams and experiences. Of course, I downloaded all of the best shit from the past. Super Metroid? The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past? WaveRace 64? They're all on my Wii's corrupted hard drive.

Which should make me panic.

But it doesn't.

Because I know I can simply download them all again once a new Wii comes into my life.

Or, I can get on a plane, fly to New York. I can always hook up my old consoles and play them there.

Old consoles, which by the way had a failure rate of 0.000000000 percent.

CORRECTION: My friend John Teti who edits the A.V. Club's videogame section sent me this useful bit of information: "The thing is, you can't download all your Virtual Console games again -- at least not without paying for them again. Because Nintendo is shit and they tie downloads to a single machine." Thanks, John.